Though George Thomas was a future UNION General in the Civil War, he was born and raised in the South – in southern Virginia, to be exact. There, Thomas and his family – his widowed mother and sisters – owned some slaves. In the Spring of 1861, after Fort Sumter in South Carolina had been taken by the Confederacy, then-“Major” George Thomas had to make the biggest decision of his life. All of the superb Southern-born soldiers that he had served under in the West in the 1850s – Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston and others – had declared for the Confederacy. But he did not. To the chagrin of his southern family, George Thomas remained in the Union army. In response, his family turned his picture to the wall, destroyed his letters, and never spoke to him again. Even during the hard, economic times in the South after the Civil War, when Thomas sent some money to his sisters, they angrily refused to accept it, declaring that they had no brother. As one of his star former pupils, the talented Confederate cavalry general “Jeb” Stuart, wrote to his wife of his old West Point teacher, “[George] Thomas is in command of the cavalry of the enemy. I would like to hang, hang him as a traitor to his native state!”
Though the currents were strong to join his native state, George Thomas during the Civil War remained loyal to his oath, unmovable, like a rock in the midst of a swift stream. We ALSO are in the midst of a swift stream of changing developments in the year 2020. How is becoming a “rock” helpful to us in these times? That is the focus of our latest “Boost from the Bible.”
The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth, chapter ten, spoke TO them of “the Rock.” Describing an important incident that happened to the Israelite people as they followed Moses and fled Egypt to the Sinai region, Paul wrote: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud [he means the cloud of God’s presence], and all passed through the [Red] Sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they [the Israelite people] drank from the spiritual rock that followed them,” concluded Paul, “and the rock was Christ.” And the Rock was Christ. Wow.
What is Paul getting at here? How can a divine person – Christ – centuries before Christ was born in Bethlehem – how can Christ be a rock, a literal rock? Well, let’s go back to that incident in Exodus, chapter 17. Not long after Moses and the Israelites had escaped Pharaoh – by Moses touching the Red Sea with his staff and parting it – the Israelites had gotten into trouble again; they found themselves without water for several days and were very thirsty. Moses turned to God and said, “You must help me, Lord, or they will stone me to death!” So God told Moses to travel to Mount Sinai, also called Mount Horeb. When Moses arrived at Mt. Horeb, God said, “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did as commanded, and, indeed the water came out of the rock.
Now what did this incident have to do with Christ? Well, let’s remember that Moses not only struck the rock, Moses also moved that special, God-blessed staff in his hand THROUGH the divine presence – through the cloud of God’s presence – for God had said, “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.” In other words, it wasn’t the literal rock that gave the much-needed water, it was GOD who did it; God was THERE to do it – to deliver the life-giving water.
Moreover, Moses often called God “The Rock.” As we read in Deuteronomy 32:15, Moses names God, “the Rock of [our] salvation.” Big boulders, you know, cannot be moved – and neither can big Gods, so to speak!
Sometimes we have to remember, in difficult times like these, that we can rely on our Creator – the Father, Son & Holy Spirit – the ONE God who NEVER breaks HIS promises! Throughout the Old Testament the prophets reminded God’s people that they need not follow after idols, or their own “weak” plans, but must put all their hope on the God who made them! As we read in Psalm 78, verse 35, “They remembered that God was their rock – [they remembered that] the Most High God [was] their redeemer!” And WE need to remember that as well!
HOW does God keep God’s promises? By being our protector! You know, there’s a certain kind of “protector” that Paul is talking about in our Bible Boost for today: “For they [the Israelite people],” Paul writes, “drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” What do I mean by “a certain KIND of protector”? Well, did you catch that Paul was saying that Christ “follows” us? Strange, is it not? We like to think of Christ as LEADING us, which He said He does in other verses, like “Take up your cross and follow Me.”
But here in 1st Corinthians 10:4, Christ is called “the spiritual rock” which “follows” us. How is that in any way protective, to follow? Well, let me explain.
Have you ever studied any battle from a war fought in the past, and the side that eventually won the war lost a particular battle IN that war? Maybe you’ve heard the famous saying, “He who fights and runs away will live to fight another day.” Sometimes, in a battle, the losing side escapes being completely destroyed because a section OF that army keeps the enemy away; that section of the army functions as the “rear guard.” Now, Christ is OUR “rear guard” whenever WE are on the retreat. – when retreating is necessary. As the old song goes, “Rock of ages, cleft for me…let me hide myself in Thee.”
In this coronavirus season, the emphasis is on what to AVOID doing – which is a kind of RETREAT – rather than on what TO do. We are to AVOID doing, at this time, certain things that may get us or others infected. It can be seen, to use an army term, as a “rear guard action,” buying our society time to come up with medicines and perhaps a vaccine that will put this virus – the enemy – away.
Paul is describing Christ as the Rock that, when struck with the holy rod by Moses, gave the needed water to the Israelites. Paul called it a “baptism” of sorts. Drinking that water in the Sinai desert didn’t get the Israelites closer to the Promised Land, but it DID keep them alive long enough to get there! Earlier, before the parting of the Red Sea, when it looked like Pharaoh’s army would catch up and kill the Israelites, we read in Exodus 14 that “the angel of God who was going before the Israelites moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in FRONT of them to BEHIND them. This pillar of cloud – Christ presence – came between the army of Egypt and the Israelites. “And so,” the account continues, “the cloud [imagine this cloud to be Christ]..the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night.” Wow.
Pray to Christ, in whatever distress or fear you are feeling right now, whatever darkness you feel…and Christ will be there in the darkness, providing the light of His love and grace. And just as water is a symbol of life, as when we are nearly dead with thirst but then we drink lifegiving waters, so let us see Christ as the Rock that continually gives us the water of hope, the water of joy, and the water of life. John in his gospel famously witnessed at the foot of the cross the spear going into Christ’s dead flesh, and, when the spear came out, he said that he saw that “at once blood AND WATER came out.” Water and Blood. John knew this was important – John later fully realized that what he witnessed connected the Jesus on the cross to the Rock that gave lifegiving water for God’s people in the desert…in other words, THAT JESUS WAS GOD! John later wrote in his first letter, “This is the One who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood.” By the waters of Baptism and by the blood of the Cross and Holy Communion, Jesus is always there to protect us from Satan’s attacks at our back.
You know, Union General George Thomas, who would NOT turn HIS back on the United States of America, found himself and his army in dire straits near the end of the Civil War battle of Chickamauga in September of 1863. In command of the 14th Corps, as the rest of the Union broke under Confederate attacks and was fleeing, Thomas held firm, holding several blue-clad units together under an onslaught on Horseshoe Ridge; through Thomas’s rear-guard action, he kept a Union defeat from becoming a hopeless rout. At one point future president James Garfield trotted up with papers from overall commander Rosecrans ordering Thomas to retreat; Thomas refused the order, stating that he would have to stay behind in order to ensure the whole Union Army’s safety. Garfield went back to Rosecrans and stated, “Thomas is standing like a rock!” After the battle, Thomas became known as “The Rock of Chickamauga,” a nickname that represented his determination to hold a vital position against strong odds, which in turn saved an army, which in turn helped the Union to survive, and slavery to end.
We are ALSO called, in these days, to hold a vital position against the onslaught of this pandemic virus. We are to keep calm and cool, like General George Thomas was, and together continue this important rear-guard action, playing for time, so that our society does not fall in a rout. What helps us keep calm and cool is the REAL Rock that is always with us – the REAL Rock that is giving us the Water of Life that quenches our spiritual thirst – namely, Jesus, our Lord and Savior! As Paul has written, Christ is the Rock that is always FOLLOWING us…always protecting us…as He keeps Satan from catching us. May we therefore feel secure in Christ’s rear-guard protection, spreading our calm and cool feelings to others as these weeks drag on, knowing that the Christ that saved us…will save us again. Amen!
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